The Netherlands returned an oil painting by Jan Brueghel the Younger to the heirs of a Jewish art dealer persecuted by the Nazis and forced to flee Germany more than 70 years ago.
“Allegory of Life and Water” by Brueghel (1601-1678) shows two ladies reclining under a tree, the towers of a town visible in the distance. The work belonged to Max Stern, the owner of a Dusseldorf art gallery who was banned by the Nazis from exercising his profession in 1935, and until now it hung in the Noordbrabants Museum in Den Bosch.
“It is important to continue to contemplate the World War II period, pose questions from a current perspective and make restitution where possible,” Judith van Kranendonk, a Dutch Culture Ministry official, said in an e-mailed statement sent before a ceremony today in The Hague to return the painting.
The Nazis stole countless artworks from across Europe -- at least 650,000, according to estimates. After the war, the Allies handed the looted works whose rightful owners could not be identified to the government of the presumed country of origin. In the Netherlands, the returned artworks -- among them, the Brueghel painting -- entered the National Art Collection.
The Netherlands was one of 44 countries that, in 1998, endorsed international principles on returning art stolen from the mainly Jewish collectors who were victims of Adolf Hitler’s regime. To implement the guidelines, the Dutch government founded a Restitutions Committee in 2002. The panel since has made recommendations on 93 claims for art in state hands.
Stern, the proprietor of the Dusseldorf Galerie Julius Stern, was banned from business and forced by the Nazis to liquidate his gallery and auction the contents -- more than 200 paintings, many of them Old Masters -- in a sale managed by the Cologne auction house Lempertz in 1937.
Though the Brueghel painting was in Stern’s possession in 1936, it wasn’t part of that sale. There is no documentation for its whereabouts until 1943, when it was purchased by the Kunsthalle Hamburg museum from an Amsterdam dealer.
Three years ago, the heirs filed a claim for the painting to the Dutch government. The Restitutions Committee recommended in May that the work should be returned. The panel said Stern may have sold it to help his mother escape Germany, or it may have been among the possessions he left when he fled, which were all later seized and sold by the Nazis.
Stern’s predicament at the time of the loss was “so menacing and dangerous that, had he succeeded in selling the claimed painting during this period, it should be considered to have been under duress,” the Dutch panel said.
It reached the conclusion that “the loss of possession was involuntary, as a result of circumstances directly related to the Nazi regime,” and that the painting should be fully restituted to the heirs.
Max Stern’s estate is managed by three universities: Concordia and McGill in Montreal and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The art dealer fled Germany shortly after the forced sale at Lempertz and reached Paris in December 1937 with nothing but a suitcase.
He set up a new business, first in Britain and then later in Montreal. He died in 1987 without children, leaving the bulk of his estate to the universities.
In 2002, the universities began a campaign to recover the lost art, creating the Max Stern Art Restitution Project, administered by Concordia. The Brueghel painting is only the eighth of about 400 missing paintings to be returned. From next month, it will be loaned to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.
“Hundreds of Stern’s works were looted,” Judith Woodsworth, the president of Concordia, said in the statement. “It is our hope that the recovery of many of them -- most notably, those currently hanging in other European museums -- will follow.”
The Flemish painter Jan Brueghel the Younger devoted his career to continuing his father’s painting style, sometimes copying his works to meet demand for big, decorative landscapes. Born in Antwerp, he was part of a dynasty of painters which included his father, Jan Brueghel the Elder, and his grandfather, Pieter Brueghel the Elder.
The highest price paid for a painting by Jan Brueghel the Younger at auction is almost $3 million, according to the Artnet database.